“Should there be a National Gallery (which is talked of), there will be an end of the art in poor old England. The reason is plain: the manufacturers of pictures are then made the criterions of perfection instead of Nature.”
Constable's complaint seems foolish, but it contains a grain of truth. There is a risk in loving art so much that we forget to look at Nature. Art based only on other art ends up being mannered and derivative. The great breakthroughs in art have come from the intense study of the real world through the artist’s own eyes.
Constable’s argument, however, should be taken as a caution, not a curriculum. The study of unfiltered Nature is a bewildering experience. Nature cannot in itself provide the artist with any “criterions of perfection.” Even the artist who paints every day from Nature may find himself fitted with blinders if he lacks a foundation in technique and tradition.
How do we begin to interpret the infinity of impressions that Nature provides? We need a compass, a guide, a map. Other artists who have gone before us can offer that guidance. Their work can blaze a pathway of possibility.
Artists should go to Nature, but they should check in to the art museum from time to time to sift through the harvest of the great souls of yore.
But one should never let the treasures of the museum pull harder at the heart than the living truth of the world around us. As Longfellow argued in his famous sonnet "Art and Nature," (translated from Francisco de Medrano), the “works of human artifice” are like a mere garden, tiresome in comparison to the eternal and infinite grandeur—the “free and wild magnificence”—of the river and the meadow.
We should not hesitate to quit the cloisters of tradition and to revel in the direct experience of Nature face-to-face. Perhaps we might discover something that has never been discovered before.
The photo is of Henry Ward Ranger. The painting is by Giuseppe Gabrielle, of Room 32 of the National Gallery in London.